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BuzzFeed Tries To Get Serious About Design

The publishing empire has hired former Etsy designer Cap Watkins as its first VP of design.

When you think of BuzzFeed, you probably think of listicals of animated cat GIFs, quizzes like "What Justin Bieber hair style are you?" and social media sharing buttons with stratospheric numbers next to them. But BuzzFeed and design? Not two words that sit next to each other in most people's minds. BuzzFeed is hoping to change that. The internet news media company has just announced its first big design hire: Cap Watkins, a Brooklyn-based product designer whose resume includes companies like Etsy, Amazon, and Formspring. Watkins joined BuzzFeed yesterday as the company's vice president of design. Why is BuzzFeed turning to the tech industry to find its top design hire?

"When BuzzFeed first started out in 2007, everything was on the web," says Chris Johanesen, vice president of product and the company's fourth employee. "Even mobile wasn't really a thing yet." But what started originally as a small, Chinatown-based viral lab studying how things get shared on the Internet has grown into a global media company with over 200 million visitors a month and over a dozen different irons in the fire. In 2015 alone, BuzzFeed will be releasing at least two dedicated apps for news and video, as well as new properties, like BFF, which will create BuzzFeed content specifically for social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

BuzzFeed already has a team of talented designers working for it, but what it needs is someone to unite them, and the projects they are working on, under a unified design umbrella, while advocating design through the rest of the company. And BuzzFeed thinks it has found that someone in Watkins. "We have a lot of compatible ideals about design," says Johanesen. "We believe design is something that informs every decision. But we also think it's important to not be overly precious about it." Watkins agrees. "Design should be something that permeates a company," he tells me. "These days, it's popular for companies to say they 'want' design, but that's not what it is. It's when everyone at a company is thinking about design—the writers, the engineers, even the people selling the ads—not just the designers."

Watkins fell into the design field accidentally. A creative writing major in college, Watkins stumbled into the tech startup scene in 2007, helping two of his friends launch PMOG, a Firefox extension that turned web browsing into a role-playing game. From there, he spent time at Zoosk and Formspring as lead designer, and at Amazon as UX designer, before becoming Etsy's senior product design manager, growing a ragtag group of nine designers, each working more or less separately, into a team of 27. There, he helped unify the company's different products under a single cohesive vision.

But BuzzFeed represents an entirely new challenge for Watkins. For one, BuzzFeed is a media company, virgin territory for a designer who has worked mostly in e-shopping. "It's a little scary," Watkins admits, "But I like scary." Plus, the world of content that BuzzFeed represents—whether listicals, video shorts, or BuzzFeed’s increasing surge into longer-form reporting—is one that Watkins is already familiar with, largely through his wife, Kim Bost, a former art director at the New York Times who is now design lead at Cover.

"One of the big reasons I'm excited about joining BuzzFeed is because, unlike a lot of media companies, it's not burdened by the infrastructure of the past," Watkins says. Johanesen agrees: "BuzzFeed is a young company, so everything's fungible. We make a lot of mistakes, but we also want to make those mistakes so we can learn."

As part of his new responsibilities at BuzzFeed, Watkins's first priority will be to unite the company and its many projects under a unified aesthetic. Currently, BuzzFeed's designers work more or less autonomously, and design isn't as important to the company's culture as, say, editorial, tech, or advertising. Watkins's job as vice president will be to change that, evangelizing the importance of a consistent, user-friendly design language across the company. The goal is to transform BuzzFeed into a company which is as smart about design as it is about social media and which can attract the very best design talent as it continues to grow.

Of course, whether or not a more nuanced, design-centric approach can even fit into BuzzFeed's culture remains to be seen. According to Johanesen, the three main drivers at BuzzFeed are technology, advertising, and editorial—and he actually doesn't see design as a new leg on the BuzzFeed tripod, but as a segment of the company's technology leg. Which, to our ears, sounds like Watkins is going to have his work cut out for him if he wants design to have an equal place at the conference table as the executives who drive BuzzFeed's ads, or the techies who prop up its nigh-uncrashable servers.

How will Watkins accomplish all of this? Even he doesn't know. "I could probably tell you something here, but I'm pretty sure I'd be wrong," Watkins says. But he isn't worried. "My wife has this term: 'Finding your Goonies," laughs Watkins. "It means finding people on your wavelength, who think about things in the same weird way that you do." With BuzzFeed, Watkins thinks he's finally found his Goonies.

Update: An original version of this article said that BuzzFeed started in Brooklyn. It actually started in Chinatown. It also misspelled the name of Watkins's first company: it was PMOG, not TMOG.

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